MP3 - Piracy Goes Mainstream?


by Stephen Moore

Two consonants, one numeral... Three characters that have the power to change the music industry forever:

M P 3

I'm sure that the vast majority of you are aware of MP3s, in fact I'll wager most of you have a few, perhaps even more than a few. For those of you who are playing catch-up though here's a quick explanation of what they are. An MP3 is a computer file which contains high quality audio, they're named after the MPEG-Layer III encoding system (see the How Does It Work? box for details on this).


How Does It Work?

MP3 sounds great, literally and also in terms of what it can do. But How does it do it? The answer's simple. It pretends to be a person. The encoder listens to a piece of music, and filters it like a human ear. It removes harmonics, frequencies and noises which we won't hear, because they're masked by other noises.

The result is something which to us sounds indistinguisable from the original. This is called psychoacoustic compression; MiniDisc uses it as well, but it compresses less and so sounds a little better.


Most MP3s contain music, the vast majority popular music. Which is where the first problem arises. You see, this music isn't technically meant to be available on MP3, in fact right now most record companies wish that MP3 would just go away quietly. The reason? It's piracy. Just like copying songs off the radio, except this time the quality of the sound is practically as good as the original CD. Obviously this isn't good news for the publishers of the music. Who wants to buy music when they can get it for nothing on the Internet?

Unfortunately for the music industry MP3s are here, today. The industry, used to planning ahead slowly and carefully and gradual changes in the landscape, has collided head on with what is called "web-time", the fast-paced technology driven developments which are spurred on, to some degree anyway, by the Internet. Six months is nothing to a record company, but in web-time it may as well be ten years.

Music first became available as MP3 files in the late 1990s, and then it would have been very easy to nip in the bud, computers were far slower then and to encode a song could easily take over an hour, it was difficult and not really especially rewarding.

MP3 players The original portable players were about the size of a cigarette packet, cost a small fortune, and didn't even have enough memory to store an album at CD-quality. Nowadays however they are slightly smaller, but have typically at least four times the storage space. Easily enough for a high quality copy of an album, and a few extra tracks thrown in. The price has also plummeted to around the hundred pound mark. In other words you can have a portable device that plays for hours on a single battery. And to cap it all off thanks to the Internet you needn't even own the music.

All of the above has the music giants running a little scared, they're firing off lawsuits left, right and centre against these "piracy devices". But nothing has frightened them as much as Napster.

You've all probably used Napster already, but at the risk of preaching to the choir I'll explain what it is now. Simply put Napster feels like a giant library of MP3 files. It's not quite that simple, in reality Napster themselves have no MP3s, but they have lots of users, and these users have MP3s. When you log into Napster you can search for any track you want, and if someone else has it you copy it off their computer. Equally other people can search for MP3s you have, and can copy them from you. It's all one big swap meet.

So far, so good. The problem here is, as ever, this is totally illegal. The songs are Copyrighted, and neither you, nor the computer you download from, nor Napster have any right to be distributing copies.

Napster is huge, it is in fact a phenomenon. It causes such sheer bandwidth usage that some Universities have banned it from their networks. The big problem however is with the record companies. They get understandably annoyed that people are copying their intellectual property (a fancy term, meaning the music) and not paying for it. So they sue Napster, and try to get as many users banned as possible.

Which would put a stop to it once and for all. At least you'd think so wouldn't you? It doesn't though. Even as Napster turf users off by the thousand at the behest of lawyers, clones are springing up all over the place.

How Else Can Music Be Compressed?

Since the invention of MP3 we've seen new formats arise. They work like MP3, but compress smaller and sound better. They don't have the widespread support of MP3 though.

These include:

- VQF (or TwinVQ) invented by Yamaha
- AAC (colloquially called MP4) which was designed for DVD soundtracks
- WMA (or ASF) Microsoft's stab at a format. Arguably sounds better than the rest, and smaller too.
These are worth trying, but are much harder to get music for.


In short, the genie is out of the bottle and no amount of wishing on the part of the record companies can put it back in again.

But don't they have a point? I mean really, MP3 might seem wonderful, music - for free. But in reality it's just like any sort of piracy. It annoys the artists like crazy, look at Metallica or the Corrs - who memorably condemned MP3 as evil and disgusting on my local radio station, and perhaps with good reason. They put a lot of work into the music, and you'd think MP3 hurts sales.

Musicians are in fact going mad about MP3. That's mad as in foaming at the mouth and biting people, not mad as in street parties and smiles. And perhaps they have a point. When you think about it the people who make the music have put a lot into it. I'm not just talking about simple effort either. Listen to interviews with artists and again and again you hear how songs were based on personal experience, or are there to exorcise their own personal demons, or whatever, perhaps not in the case of the teen-pop acts but certainly in the more "adult" group it happens a lot.

People who download the MP3 are then basically stealing this music, music into which an awful lot has been put, not just effort but perhaps, in some odd way, a piece of the artist's soul. If someone wants to put themselves on show like that don't they at the very least deserve to be paid for the work and sacrifice? Once you look at it that way it's quite easy to see why so many of them get so intensely angry about piracy, people are stealing something over which they have agonised.

Perhaps the above paragraph seemed a bit extreme, but it's not. It's also the core of the argument which Metallica are using against Napster. Basically they feel that the music for which they worked so hard should belong to them, it shouldn't be traded among listeners like so many Pokémon cards. Which is really quite a fair point when viewed like that. People have of course pointed out that "if they feel that way about people giving it away for free, how much must they hate the scum who SELL the stuff". Which is an interesting counter argument. But at least when the music is sold the musician will see some small part of that back in royalty.

Recently in the US a lot of artists banded together to form Artists Against Piracy. Basically AAP is a group who think piracy is bad mm'kay, and would quite like you to stop please, if you don't mind. If you don't stop presumably they'll ask again. There's a fair spread of musicians there, including Alanis Morissette, Barenaked Ladies, blink-182, Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Christina Aguilera, DMX, Faith Hill, Filter, Garth Brooks, Hanson, Queen, Sarah McLachlan, Shelby Lynne and Sisqo and they all would rather you paid for their music please. AAP claims to be "against digital distribution" but that's probably a codephrase for "against Napster".

Quite intriguingly Offspring are a pro-Napster and MP3 band, they think that they're great, a good way to get their music out to the masses. They're very vocal in their support, even printing "Napster" T-shirts and selling them online. Which has, quite hilariously, made them also the first band that Napster are suing! The reason? Use of a trademark without permission...

OK, preaching over, you can all come back now. It is however time for the obligatory lecture on copyright law. You see when you buy a CD you own the physical medium, and you can play it as much as you want. What you don't own is the music. That's owned by the artists, the publisher, the authors and about a million other people. But not you. So you don't have the right to copy it and give it to your friends, nor do you have the right to make MP3s and give them away to all and sundry. That's the law, starkly and simply.

What's interesting is that for all the descriptions of copyright "theft" and "stealing" music (which even I am guilty of saying), it's not actually a criminal offence. Not unless you're making money from the piracy. It's a civil offence to copy things for free, which means all you are liable for is a fine and a slapped wrist. If on the other hand you're mad enough to try to make money selling copied MP3 files, then you can go straight to jail, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred pounds.

There is one other thing that the music industry hates about MP3 music. It's that it gives the listener a choice. If you like only one track off an album then there's no need to buy the album, just download the track. The businesses don't like that one bit. If you want album tracks you should be made to buy the whole album. That suddenly distribution on a track-by-track basis is possible, well that really shakes the corner stone of their world. And it should. We SHOULD be able to pick and choose album tracks, to mix and match and build our own libraries. That we can't was forced by the medium, not the music. But now the industry is too set in its ways to change this, and the new reality scares them.

However, fans will buy records. Fans will download MP3s. But on balance they'd rather buy the record than download the MP3. The problem is that a lot of the tracks they want are either deleted, not out yet or only available on albums which cost huge amounts of money to import from Japan. So they MP3 the tracks in the meantime, until they can track down the missing album, or the new one is released, or they find an importer like Esprit ( who can provide them with the obscure foreign release.

In the end they will still buy the record.

At least that's the hardcore fan audience. The world is not however made up of hardcore fans, it's made up of average folk who perhaps quite like to listen to music. These same average folk however are unlikely to want to be bothered with Napster or its ilk. They want to listen to music, not spend the best part of a day chasing an album through the internet only to find the one person who has it is sitting on the other end of the world's slowest modem, and that if they really want the album for free they'd better be ready for about a week of downloading. In reality these people are much more likely to just go down to the shop and buy the music, it's less hassle for them and they can have it today.

Another group of people who MP3 can make sales to is people who otherwise wouldn't consider buying the album but hear the MP3, perhaps they listened to it at a friend's house, or possibly someone gave them the MP3. Either way if they like the album they'll probably want to be able to listen to it away from the computer. So it's a simple choice, fork out the cash for an MP3 player or pay the (much lower) cost of the album. Result? Album sale.

There is one remaining group, the unshakable pirate. The person who never got past home taping and now downloads MP3 after MP3. Well, this person won't be buying the album, but the key point is that they never would have bought it in the first place.

In fact, from what I've said above, a lot of the time if anything MP3 helps sell records, perhaps moreso even than radio play in some extreme cases. In the past year or so I've been intrigued by some records, and wanted to hear them, the radio however caters almost exclusively for teeny boppers and post-Britpop angst. So a lot of what I want to hear first isn't there. Solution? Fire up Napster, find the song you seek, listen to it. And then, and here comes the revelation for the industry, BUY IT. Really.

You see, MP3 comes close to being CD quality, but unless the bit rate is cranked up high and it's been done with some absolutely A grade software, there is still a definite and audible difference in the quality. So music fans will buy the original, because if you like a song you want to listen to it properly, not with washed out high frequencies and passages that sound like they're bubbled through a fish-tank.

Just imagine if these MP3s were available to buy at a reasonable price online? No more fiddling with Napster, or hanging around in dodgy IRC channels, just go to an online music store, pay for your track and download it. Hassle free music. OK so you pay a little for the song, but it takes away all the pain of looking for it. I'm sure a lot of people wouldn't mind paying a fair price for the ability to download their MP3s.


Where Can I Get This Stuff? is home to Napster is a nifty little addon to let you pick servers is where Winamp, the best MP3 player, lives.


MP3 could even be a lifesaver for the industry. At the moment the players are all different, use different standards, different ways to store audio. But imagine a world where if you wanted a track on the cheap you could walk into a shop, plug your MP3 player into a terminal, select the song you want, or indeed whole album, and transfer it onto the player. With the lack of actual physical media necessary tracks could go for as little as 50p each.

There you go, cheap, high quality music.

It'll come, sooner or later, because sooner or later the industry will notice that people don't want to buy whole albums to get the two or three tracks that they want. And that if the price is low enough people will happily spring for the music.

Where does that leave MP3? Piracy gone mainstream, and with the potential to turn music retail on its head.